‘A washing machine tummy’
‘A volcano inside of me’
Even if you’ve never set foot in a playground , you’ll know that it is a place of liberation, creativity and fun, where children are free to be whoever and whatever they want to be, away from the educational constraints of the classroom.
Yet I would ask you to look a little closer at this seemingly exquisite picture.
Look past the games of tag and hide-and-seek. Look past the cries of joy and the shrieks of laughter. Look past the rough and tumble games played by adolescent boys on the football pitch and the pretend play games concocted by the colourful imaginations of little girls.
Look a little closer in between the lines, and you’ll most likely see a different image entirely.
You’ll see one petite sized girl sitting by herself, eyes cast down towards the ground, entirely caught up in the whirlwind of emotions that occupy her.
You’ll see a boy anxiously wringing his hands together as he watches his classmates play, weighed down by whatever unjust troubles occupy his young mind.
You’ll see lagging another child lagging just behind their friends, being among them but, at the same time, not quite one of them.
This particular child pauses for breath, stares blankly ahead for a second or two, and suddenly scampers along as he attempts to play catch up – perhaps in more ways than one…
The Road Ahead…
It is said that 75% of mental health problems in adults have their roots in childhood. In fact, research carried out by University College London has indicated that one in four girls and one in ten boys are depressed by the age of 14.
In can be argued that schools, and in extension, the adults who work in various educational settings are in an excellent position to identify any risks that may occur to certain children. After all, working in a prolonged period of six hours a day, five days a week, means that it is arguably teachers who are (or should be) in an optimal position of identifying key risks to their welfare.
Unfortunately the situation is not so cut and dry.
With schools increasingly expected to play a role in identifying children who are at risk their budget is slashed at the same time. As a result many schools are buckling under the pressure of it all . This is worsened by the fact that around four in 10 primary school teachers who took part in a recent YouGov poll said they were not confident they knew which organisations to approach to help a pupil with mental health issues!
‘Children spend most of their time in school so we need to upskill the profession‘
A former teacher
Furthermore, child and adolescent mental health services (CAMHS) are continuously coming under a similar amount of financial stress, so even if a child is identified to a person in authority as needing help, this does not mean such help is easily accessible.
According to experts, the reason for this increase in mental health issues is due to a variety of reasons, from ‘pressure to succeed at school, the damaging effects of social media, family breakup, growing inequality in recent years, children’s body-image fears, a history of abuse, including sexual abuse, and increasing sexualisation’.
The result of all of this can be catastrophic.
‘If mental health is a barrier to achievement then we need to be able to help young people get over that barrier’
General secretary of the Association of School and College Leaders
In 2016, Childline reported a 15 per cent increase in suicidal calls, with children as young as ten years old using the helpline as a means of last resort for help. While it’s indisputable that the helpline being used by these children is a good thing, it is the increase in suicidal calls that needs to be addressed – and it needs to be addressed as soon as possible.
There is also a clear link between poor mental health and the exclusion of children from the educational environment. Recent data suggests that the rate of exclusions is rising to almost 7,000 a year in England, and half those who are excluded have an identifiable mental health problem and/or learning difficulty. These include conditions such as depression, anxiety, ADHD and those on the autism spectrum.
An even more shocking statistic is that not only are children with a identifiable mental health problem more likely to be excluded in the first place, but their exclusion acted as a predictor of increased psychological distress a whole three years later!
‘It’s vital that we give children the skills to talk about their feelings at an early age’
Professor Peter Fonagy, AFNCCF chief executive
What is even more disturbing is the reported upsurge in cases where children turn to various methods of self harm in order to quell whatever emotional distress is affecting them. Often this is due to the excessively long waiting times for them to receive psychiatric treatment, with many being forced to wait for up to 18 months to be treated!
All of this information would suggest that whatever intervention that needs to take place to help those afflicted by mental illness ideally needs to do be carried out in the early stages of childhood, though of course is far more easier said than done.
So what can be done?
While ensuring the mental of children is a momentous task to take on, there are a few simple precautions that can be taken so that exclusion from school really is a measure of the last resort.
The first, as this interesting article from The Guardian highlights, is the proposition of a ‘Happiness Ofsted’ approach to critiquing schools, whereby the idea is to ‘deliver training to children in years five to 13 and introduce them to a range of positive psychology topics such as wellbeing, resilience, personal responsibility, growth mindsets, kindness, mindfulness and gratitude.’
‘In 20 years of teaching, this has given the biggest impact on children’
A teacher’s opinion on the Brilliant Schools programme
The aim of this programme appears to empower the young minds of the future by placing the potential for happiness and peace of mind in their own hands, and going by the way such an approach has evidently changed behaviours and has even resulted in improved SATs results, it is an idea that clearly holds some merit!
There are also some innovative ideas out there such as those proposed The Difference, a UK charity that aims to aims to ‘recruit the best teachers and develop them into mental health specialists’. This is something that would not only allow teachers to be more equipped to help ailing students, but if they should choose to do so, they can enter mainstream schools and share their expertise with others!
It is also useful to explore the concept of alternative provision, whereby a better way is sought to handle those children who face exclusion from school. This could include suggestions such as providing short-term education off the school site, for challenging pupils; permanently excluded pupils can be educated full-time in pupil referral units.
Of course it should also be highlighted how useful the practise of mindfulness can be for people of all different ages, as I have discussed in a previous article. While it is not a short term solution to make young children’s mental health issues go away, it has proved time and time again to be an effective tool for coping in an ever changing world.
It is pleasing to see a more active efforts are being made in this area by schools than there used to be. Mindfulness techniques are being employed in such a way so as to allow students to ‘start their meditation by taking a deep breath and are then encouraged to clear their minds by focusing on their breathing or the gentle background music.’
Any participation in this practise is invaluable, whether that be by utilising mindfulness bottles, carrying out group meditation or simply by practising certain breathing techniques in order to help calm the mind.
‘It can be frustrating when you find yourself offering the same reassurances on repeat, but sometimes it’s the 47,000th time we hear something that it actually sinks in‘
Writer and Campaigner
A child that is out of step with his or her peers is a blight on society, on the education system, and in extension of this, it is a blight on each and every one of us as members of a society that allows this kind of injustice to go unchecked.
More needs to be done to help the future generation develop into the people that they should be, and it needs to be done now.
Did you know?
Around 60% of the prison population was excluded from school.
Some local authorities have no good or outstanding pupil referral units and around 1% of pupils leave alternative provision with five good GCSEs.
As part of an effort to develop new mental health treatments, a project is currently being developed by the Collaboration for Leadership in Applied Health Research and Care East of England in order to combat the issue of children attempting to self harm. It purportedly involves the use of an app ‘that uses a series of images aimed at distracting people facing triggers for self-harm’.
Bed shortages are forcing the NHS to send children sometimes hundreds of miles away from their home area in order to be treated for their psychological issues.
According to an article published by The Guardian, NHS England is unable to disclose whether the bulk of their mental health spending accessed by children in need has any beneficial outcome for the child in question. This essentially means that ‘public money is being spent without accountability and without consideration for the best interests of the child’.
On the plus side, over 5000 teachers in the UK have been trained to teach mindfulness, according to the Mindfulness Initiative – and this number is only growing every year!
Young Minds is the UK’s leading charity committed to ‘the wellbeing and mental health of children and young people’.
If you are a concerned adult, you can also call the Young Minds Parents Helpline on 0808 802 554 (Monday to Friday 9.30am – 4pm, free for mobiles and landlines), where you can be given practical advice, and information on how to refer your child to the appropriate specialists.
You can call Childline for free on 0800 1111 any time of the day or visit their website at at www.childline.org.uk
Emotional support helplines:
Samaritans :116 123
Rethink Mental Illness advice line 0300 5000 927 (Monday to Friday 09:30-16:00; local rate)
Sane Line:0845 767 8000
Mind also has a useful guide of support and services, which can be found by clicking the link right here